Oakland Has Drawn Two Dots to Connect

It was easy enough to understand the Ryon Healy trade on its own. Healy is a good hitter but not a great hitter, and he doesn’t come with much defensive value. The A’s wanted to free up the DH spot so they could move Khris Davis out of the outfield. Emilio Pagan is a talented young reliever, and the A’s organization also picked up a 17-year-old prospect. Pretty normal value exchange, even if it’s fairly uncommon to see division rivals swap so many team-control years. Different needs were met.

Now the A’s have also signed free-agent reliever Yusmeiro Petit. It’s a modest two-year deal with a third-year club option, and the deal was announced later Wednesday. Taken on its own, again, it’s unremarkable. The A’s have said they wanted bullpen help, and now they’ve added bullpen help. Petit just had a very good season. Simple. The kind of move you forget about two days later.

But I’d like to quickly connect the dots. There are two dots. Perhaps they’re meant to be unconnected. I’m going to read into this anyway. What does it mean that the A’s have picked up both Pagan and Petit? The two have a specific similarity.

Petit is an older, fly-ball-prone righty reliever. Pagan is a younger, fly-ball-prone righty reliever. Both of them are better against righties than they are against lefties, and both of them are coming off strong 2017 campaigns. For Pagan, he was just getting his feet wet in the major leagues. For Petit, he emerged as a reliable high-leverage option, after some years of working mop-up.

Yet there’s one other thing: Petit and Pagan weren’t only good. They were good over extended appearances. They were frequently trusted to work more than an inning at a time, and they held up to the workload. I’ve prepared the following plot, which I think is illustrative. On one axis, you see basic K-BB%, which I like as a very simple indicator of pitcher quality. On the other axis, you see average batters faced per appearance. This plot includes 2017 relievers who threw in at least 20 games, and Pagan and Petit are highlighted in yellow. It doesn’t matter which is which.

There are 261 different pitchers represented in here. Pagan and Petit round out the top 25 in batters faced per game. They’re also within the top 30 in K-BB%. It’s not a unique skillset, but it’s a relatively rare one. Similar pitchers include Chad Green, Chris Devenski, and Josh Hader. Green was by far the most dominant of the bunch, but all were effective for longer outings. This is the kind of pitcher the 2017 A’s didn’t possess, and this is the kind of pitcher that becomes only more important as starting assignments get shorter and shorter.

Most teams would want one of these guys. The A’s have two. That also makes sense, because their pitching staff overall is thin. No starting pitcher stepped up in the absence of Sonny Gray, and the club long ago traded Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Sean Manaea has shown promising flashes. So have, say, Jharel Cotton and Kendall Graveman, and in the bullpen, Blake Treinen immediately improved after arriving from the Nationals. The staff isn’t empty, but it’s in need of quality innings, however they can be found. Petit and Pagan, combined, could be like three relievers in two. They can serve as bridges, either to the later innings, or to cover what would be third trips through the order.

Provided, that is, you believe Petit and Pagan are really and truly good. Neither one of them has eye-popping stuff, so they might not make immediate sense as quality options. But the recent numbers speak for themselves. If you can’t trust the 2017 statistics, I don’t know where else you go.

Why any urgency to sign Petit now? Pagan, sure — he’s young and could be around for a while. He fits a club in Oakland’s position. But why the 33-year-old journeyman? Is Oakland really intending to play for something? There’s value in just having innings eaten, even if you don’t think a club will be successful. You don’t want anyone else to be over-taxed. But there could also be something brewing here, something that would admittedly be easy to miss. The A’s aren’t anywhere close to being as good as the Astros, but, could they be as good as, say, the Twins?

In the second half of the most recent season, the A’s lineup ranked third in baseball in wRC+. In case you prefer something beyond just the actual results, they also ranked third in baseball in expected wOBA. And the A’s still have just about every player who contributed to that offensive surge. Healy, of course, is gone, but his second half was actually poor. The players who most shined were Jed Lowrie, Matt Joyce, Khris Davis, and — importantly — also Matt Olson and Matt Chapman.

Olson isn’t going to keep hitting 12 home runs for every double, but he’s nevertheless a legitimate threat to go deep. And Chapman, as a rookie, was just worth almost 3 WAR in basically half of a season. He’s powerful, and he’s also an amazing defensive third baseman. Baseball Reference thinks he was worth almost 4 WAR in his playing time. Over 84 games, Chapman had a UZR of +9, and he had a DRS of +19. Chapman might be developing into an actual all-around star, which is the kind of player the A’s have sorely lacked. It’s star players that most allow teams to be competitive.

Chapman and Olson are critical keys to Oakland’s short- and medium-term fate, but they’re also going to have Dustin Fowler, and Franklin Barreto might not be far off, should Marcus Semien struggle (or should Lowrie get hurt, or something else). You can see something here, among the position players. Oakland intends to still add another outfielder, and you can see a solid lineup that’s much better in the field. The lineup won’t be dominant, but you could see something like the Twins’ equation, with a bunch of pretty good hitters helping to offset a mediocre pitching staff.

The Oakland pitching staff is still mediocre. They have their upside, but then, so does everybody. If this team is going to try to win 85 or so games, it’s going to need to hit. The good news is it looks like it could. There should be actual defensive support as well. And the pitchers can be somewhat saved, if 160 innings or so get handed to Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan. They could help prevent the starters from being exposed, and they could get the ball to Treinen, or Liam Hendriks, or whoever else might be useful. The A’s have added two relievers. In effect, they’ve added something like three relievers. It’s something to patch over the holes. It’s something to keep the A’s afloat.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

This is exactly right. There aren’t a lot of obvious ways to upgrade the rotation; free agency doesn’t have much promising a significant upgrade (a sentimental Sabathia signing notwithstanding), and no one trades front line starters.

Moreover, given that the team’s real window is something like 2020-2022 — when the offense might run out a freaky Murphy/Olson/Neuse/Barreto/Chapman/Fowler/Mateo/Harper (you heard it here first) — it makes sense for them to cycle through Hahn/Cotton/Gossett/Mengden/Blackburn/Bassitt et al to see if any of them shake out.

And of course they won’t, or they’ll be great through 5. So you get better by improving your swingmen. I think they might actually have three candidates for this role on the roster already: Bassitt, Triggs and Montas (who the team said they believed in as a starter, though I don’t remember them trying it). Run those five out with Treinen, Hendriks, maybe a Tommy Hunter signing, and this staff could surprise.

The A’s definitely need a catcher, pending Maxwell’s situation, and probably another starting outfielder — probably a right-handed one in case Powell or Fowler needs a buddy. (Piscotty trade or an Austin Jackson signing could make sense.)

But overall they’re in a great place where they can hope for a hot start, and if they don’t get it, they can sell Joyce, Lowrie and relievers, while counting on being better next year.

AJ pro-Preller
6 years ago
Reply to  hahiggins

Yea, Morman-Latter Day Saint Bryce Harper is going to choose to play in Oakland…where it is dark 24 hours a day if you catch my drift.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
6 years ago
Reply to  AJ pro-Preller

Well, the next major Mormon Saint Brice will decide to play, Harper in Oakland … 24 hours Front Desk, if you drift.